How to really involve learners

Creating an online course? I’ll bet the autopilot in your brain is saying this: “First, present the basic concepts. Next, tell them the details. Then, show them what to do. Finally, have them do it.”

Pull the plug on that autopilot and consider doing this instead.

  1. Create a challenging, realistic practice activity (not a knowledge check). The activity asks people to make the same decision that they need to make on the job. It’s probably a scenario.
  2. Identify the minimum that people need to know to complete that activity.
  3. Make that information available as an optional link in the activity. Let people pull the information when they need it.
  4. Plunge people into that activity with no presentation beforehand.
  5. Once people make their choice, consider showing the necessary information in the feedback. First show the consequence of the choice (continue the story). Then show the information that the learner should have looked at. This will satisfy the stakeholder who says, “But they all have to be exposed to the information!” Here’s a basic example.
  6. Repeat as needed.

The result is a stream of activities in which learners pull the information they need. It’s not a presentation occasionally interrupted by an activity.

Aim for a stream of activities

Use scaffolding to ease them into the challenge

With careful design, this approach works with all types of information, including basic concepts, mental models, step-by-step procedures, and detailed product specifications. The trick is to start with an easy-ish but still interesting activity and increase the challenge.

For example, if you want people practice a procedure that requires some tricky judgment calls, your optional information could include the procedure itself, tips on how to complete each step, and worked examples of the trickier steps, such as showing what a fictional person thought as they made their decisions for that step.

However, you don’t dump all this information on people at once. The information available depends on the step that the learner is completing. Your first activity could have them complete an easier step with just the procedure document and some tips, and as the activities progress, the decisions become harder and the optional help focuses on the trickier steps, with worked examples.

Make sure you say clearly and often that no one is tracking what people click. Encourage them to try all sorts of options to see what happens.

This online chapter from Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey’s book Guided Instruction gives a helpful overview of the technique, although the classroom example at the end isn’t the type of scaffolding that I’m describing.

Use the real-world job aid

If people can look at a reference on the job, have them use the same reference in your practice activities. Their learning is more likely to transfer to the job, and you save yourself the hassle of recreating the job aid.

If people need to memorize some information, ask yourself, “If they apply the information in several activities, will they end up memorizing it?” If the answer is “no,” this is probably the only argument for drills that I’ll ever make: You might link to a gamelike drill to get the information into their memory, and be sure to provide spaced practice.

Give them spaced practice

Instead of packaging all the activities as a take-it-and-forget-it course, consider delivering them spaced over time, such as one activity every few days. Research shows we learn better when we practice over time.

You can space your activities because each activity is self-contained — it links to the information needed to complete it, rather than being embedded in the middle of a presentation.

If you’ve made the activities get progressively more complex, you’ll want to maintain their sequence during the spacing. Consider ending the sequence with a live discussion to help people synthesize what they’ve learned.

Calendar showing spaced practice and discussion

Another option is to make the activities available for people to try whenever they want, probably with a recommended order of completion.

You will be a hero

Letting people pull the information they need has these happy results:

  • They’re grateful that you respect them as adults with life experience, instead of assuming they’re all equally ignorant.
  • You help them develop a motivating sense of mastery.
  • No one will have to sit through information that they don’t need. The only people who will look at the information will be the ones who need to see it.
  • Research into productive failure suggests people learn better when they struggle a bit, which is why we should jettison the genies and let people think for themselves.

You’ll find several more reasons in this post.

“Turn this information into a course” is not your job

Finally, you’re designing activities because you analyzed the performance problem and saw that practice will help.

If you involved your stakeholders in this analysis (as you should!), they’ll no longer obsess over presenting and testing knowledge. Instead, they’ll commit to changing what people do.

I write about this a lot because it goes against “the way we’ve always done it,” which still dominates our field. Here’s a walkthrough showing how to do this in more detail for people who diagnose squealing widgets. This example shows how you might do this for soft skills. If you’re doing technical training, focus on what they need to do. Finally, here’s an interactive workflow of the entire process.


Scenario design course starts in May

For a lot more on helping people learn through scenarios, consider signing up for my scenario design course, which starts in May. The sessions include one in an Australia-friendly time zone.

Scenario mistakes to avoid #2: “Eat! Eat! You need to eat!”

“You need to eat more!” she says, heaping your plate until it rivals Mount Everest. “Eat! Eat!”

We all know the stereotype. Unfortunately, we can find ourselves turning into that stereotype when we feed information to people.

“You have to know this!” we say, filling the screen to bursting. “And this! And this!”

A huge platter of paellaIn scenario-design land, we can find ourselves doing this:

“First we’ll feed them everything they need to know, and then we’ll feed them some more as we show them how an expert does it, and finally we’ll let them waddle, overstuffed and dazed, through a scenario.”

Example, only slightly exaggerated

In the first post in this series, widget technicians had to diagnose squealing widgets. In the “Eat! Eat!” design approach, we’d “teach” them this way:

  • Tell the “widget story” — how widgets were invented and our company’s proud role in widgets’ ascendence to importance.
  • Explain how prompt customer service has helped us stand out in the widget field.
  • Explain that despite the stellar quality of our engineering, any widget could eventually develop a squeal.
  • Show a video of a squealing widget.
  • Show all the moving parts in a typical widget and what they do.
  • Explain that most squealing widgets have a wobbling synderhobble, and the squealing will stop when the synderhobble is screwed back into place.
  • Open a squealing widget, point to the wobbling synderhobble, and screw it back into place.
  • Say, “Now you do it.”
  • Watch as the “learners” obediently imitate what they saw five seconds ago by opening their widgets and screwing the synderhobble back into place.
  • Display a bulleted list of the other, less common causes of squealing widgets.
  • Move onto the next topic: Wobbling Widgets.

What’s wrong with this?

We make people eat when they’re full

We assume that everyone in the audience is equally and profoundly ignorant of the topic. But our audience consists of adults with decades of experience tinkering with gadgets — that’s why they signed up to be widget technicians. Some of them have already worked with widgets or with widget-like technology. Yet we stuff them with information they might already know, slowly suffocating what motivation they might have had.

We make people rely on short-term memory

Worse, our “scenario” came immediately after we showed them what to do. We used a version of “tell, show, do” that short-circuits independent thought.

Mike, a new widget technician, watched us screw the synderhobble into place, and 20 seconds later he had half-heartedly imitated what he saw. He was actually thinking about the vintage motorcycle he’s been taking apart in his garage.

Did Mike learn what we wanted him to learn? Was the behavior we wanted “Screw a synderhobble into place?” or was it “Correctly diagnose the cause of a squealing widget?”

Screwing the synderhobble into place is easy. Correctly diagnosing the cause of a squealing widget while an irritated customer waits impatiently is much harder. But instead of having people practice the hard stuff, we fed them the answer immediately and had them practice the easy task.

An alternative

The first post in this series describes an activity that would help Mike practice the harder stuff: He’s on a fictional phone call with a customer whose widget is squealing.

We haven’t shown Mike the history of widgets, and we haven’t told him that the most common cause of squealing is the synderhobble. We’ve just plunged him into the fictional phone call and provided optional help.

In elearning, that optional help could be links, such as:

  • A downloadable job aid: “How to Diagnose a Squealing Widget”
  • A short presentation, “The Moving Parts in a Widget,” that’s always available online

In face-to-face training, the optional help could be a printed version of the job aid and a link to the presentation on everyone’s smart phone. Since technicians often go into the field, this information needs to be portable.

When he’s in the scenario, Mike can look at the help or not, depending on his pre-existing knowledge and his willingness to try and possibly fail. The feedback shows the consequence of his choice, as described in the previous post.

Mike has to think on several levels: What do I know about this already? Is it accurate? What could be causing the squeal? What should I try first? And when he looks for information, it’s because he wants it. The information is a tempting buffet, not a mass forced-feeding.

Mike thinks hard and practices the hard stuff — diagnosing a squealing widget. He’s not daydreaming about the vintage motorcycle, and he’s probably more likely to transfer what he learned to his job. We’ve also made transfer easier by giving him a job aid and some information that’s always available on his phone.

I rant about this a lot, in posts like the following:

For the research supporting this approach, see Where’s the research support for scenarios? in my knowledgebase, the research cited in the post Throw them in the deep end, and books that summarize learning research, including Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning and Design for How People Learn.

Action mapping workflow available as an interactive graphic

Action mapping workflowWith help from readers’ feedback on the draft version, I’ve improved the action mapping workflow and summarized it in an interactive graphic.

You can download the graphic and a Word version of the workflow from that page.

Photo credit: Platter of paella by Joanbrebo via Compfight cc

Let me tell you everything you need to know! Or not.

Plane to ZekostanCongratulations! You’ve just been assigned to work with a design team in Zekostan. You’re leaving in a week.

Your Zeko colleagues know that you’re coming from a very different culture and might have trouble fitting in. Luckily, they’ve developed some materials that help people from your culture prepare for working in theirs.

You can choose one of the following “Prepare for Zekostan” packages. Which will you choose?

PACKAGE 1. A 56-slide online course in which a nice Zeko woman describes some cultural differences, bulleted tips appear on the screen, and you complete a quiz to confirm your understanding.

PACKAGE 2. A one-page PDF of tips, plus eight online branching scenarios in which you practice responding appropriately during typical interactions in the Zeko workplace.

If you’re like most people, you want package 2, the PDF and scenarios. You can put the PDF of tips on your smartphone to review as often as you like, and the scenarios will help you practice applying the tips in a safe but realistic-enough setting. You’ll be able to make mistakes in private and learn from them, instead of making them in front of your new colleagues.

Separate the info from the activity: It’s the Zeko way

Your preference for package 2 will also reassure your Zeko colleagues that you share their views about design. They’ve moved away from presenting information in an “engaging” way and then testing recall.

Instead, they put the information in a simple format that people can easily refer to whenever they want. They focus their design time on creating challenging, realistic activities that help people practice the decisions they need to make on the job. As people try the activities, they can refer to the information.

Example: Greet your colleague

How do the packages compare? Let’s look at how each package “teaches” a greeting.

PACKAGE 1: A nice Zeko lady appears as a talking head on the screen. “People new to the Zeko workplace are often surprised by our way of greeting our colleagues,” she says in a pleasant voice. “Greetings are of course very important in every culture. In Zekostan, we use greetings to show our connection to others by highlighting what we have in common. So when we greet each other at work, we identify a role that we have and that the other person also has, and we salute them from that role. For example, if you are an engineer and you are greeting another engineer, you would say, ‘The engineer in me salutes the engineer in you.'”

The following appears as a bullet point on the screen: “Salute new colleagues using the job role that you have in common.”

Eventually, you get to a quiz. One of the questions is, “How should you greet a new colleague?” and one of the options is, “Salute them using the job role that you have in common.”

PACKAGE 2: The PDF has a section that looks like this:

GREETINGS
New colleagues
Goal: Highlight what you have in common
Technique:
     1. Identify a job role or responsibility that both of you have.
     2. Say, “The [job role] in me salutes the [same job role] in you.”
Example: “The engineer in me salutes the engineer in you.”

The practice activities in package 2 often begin with you meeting new colleagues. In one of the scenarios, you’re a project manager, and your new boss introduces you to a team mate who’s also a project manager. You have to decide what to say. You choose, “The project manager in me salutes the project manager in you,” and your new colleague welcomes you warmly.

In another scenario, you’re a quality assurance manager. Your boss introduces you to a colleague who’s an editor. What should you say?

  1. The quality assurance manager in me salutes the editor in you.
  2. The quality advocate in me salutes the quality advocate in you.
  3. The detail freak in me salutes the detail freak in you.
  4. The team member in me salutes the team member in you.

You take the safe route and choose 4. Your new colleague gives you a decidedly cool welcome. You click “Why did this happen?” and see the following:

You’ve suggested that the only thing you have in common is that you’re assigned to the same team. This can be interpreted a veiled insult. When you don’t have the same title as your colleague, choose the most flattering responsibility or trait that you have in common. In this case, “quality advocate” would be best.

Look at the information or not: It’s up to you

In package 2, you’re not required to read the PDF before you start the activities. For example, you could ignore the PDF, jump right into the activities, offend people, click the optional feedback to find out what you did wrong, go back and make better decisions, and finally look at the PDF, treating it as a summary of what you learned through experience.

“The adult in me salutes the adult in you.”

Your new Zeko colleagues think it’s disrespectful to require grownups to all be exposed to the same information presentation, regardless of their prior knowledge. They think we treat adults like children when we tell them what to think and test them 5 minutes later to see if they can still think it.

Instead, your new colleagues base their design decisions on the following facts:

  • The people using the material are adults who have been learning from experience for decades.
  • They might already know some of what we’re supposed to “teach” them.
  • Some of their most memorable lessons started out as mistakes.
  • Adults’ self-esteem will not be squashed by a mistake in a training scenario.
  • When people struggle a bit, they can learn more deeply.
  • If people don’t want to struggle, they can always look at the supporting information or optional help.
  • Well-designed scenarios help people prove that they know something while they also practice doing it.
  • We’re in business, not education. We want people to do stuff, not just know stuff.

Obviously, the examples were simplified, and both packages provide just a band-aid approach to cross-cultural skills. A more effective preparation would dig below the surface pleasantries to help newcomers see from the Zeko perspective. In that case, I’d argue that scenarios would become even more important, because they’d help people notice subtle cues and shift perspectives in complex social interactions.

Explore some more

Scenario design course starts on Feb. 10
For a lot more on helping people learn through scenarios, consider signing up for my scenario design course, which starts on Feb. 10. There’s still room in the European session, which meets in the morning in the Americas.

Learning Technologies in London
If you like the idea of taking information presentation out of activities, you might like my London Learning Technologies session, “Throw them in at the deep end.” You’ll overhaul some conventional activities to make them more immersive and challenging. I’ll also be talking with practitioners at Booth H21 as part of the LT eXchange, and I’ll be part of the BarCamp with Aaron Silvers, Shannon Tipton, and David Kelly. All of this happens on Feb. 3. I hope to see you there!

Photo by Colby Stopa

5 quick ways to pull learners into a course

Typically bad stock photo“Welcome to the course Online Responsibility,” a too-perfect male voice intones while you stare at a stock photo of a man who’s grinning idiotically at a computer.

“Billions of bits of data travel through our firm every day,” the voice drones on while the stock photo changes to science-fictiony swirling lines and numbers. “Since the dawn of the digital age, electronic communication has…”

You lunge for the Next button, but you’re not allowed to click it until the droning man finishes, which he finally does while you’re in another browser tab, watching a video of a cat playing the piano.

I’ve seen a ton of elearning, and the painful majority of it starts this way. What are some alternatives?

1. Use a meaningful course name and skip the explanation.

If the title of the course is “Data Privacy,” then you can trust learners to understand that it concerns keeping data private. A meaningful title frees you from having to ponderously explain what the course is about.

2. Nix the narrator.

In corporate L&D, our learners are adults who can read for themselves, and they do it a heck of a lot faster than a narrator talks. Nothing squashes my interest in a subject more thoroughly than having the material spoon-fed to me by a slow speaker who apparently thinks I’m dense. In my sacrilegious opinion, the best use for a narrator is to talk about a graphic that isn’t already self-explanatory, not to deliver information that could be more concisely and quickly delivered through text. Here’s some research to support this. (And our main goal should be to design experiences, not information.)

3. Immediately show concise, appealing objectives.

Briefly tell the learner what they’ll be able to do as a result of the course, and focus on what they care about. Here’s a sample makeover of some boring objectives.

4. Motivate by showing, not telling.

Normally, your objectives should be motivating enough. If you think your learners need even more motivation, avoid the temptation to present statistics or to otherwise tell them why the topic is important. Show them through a story.

For example, you could (quickly!) show a young couple with a baby being turned down for a mortgage because one of our employees accidentally released their private data, which a bad guy used to get credit cards and destroy their credit history. For more on using stories to motivate, see Made to Stick.

5. Put basic information in activities, not a presentation, and let people prove that they already know it.

If you want to make sure everyone has the same basic knowledge before continuing, design activities that let people either prove they know the basics or discover the basics through feedback.

For example, in my scenario design course, I want everyone to have the same definition of “scenario.” However, I don’t show the definition at the start. Instead, I just say, “Let’s see if you can identify what I think a scenario is.” I then show several examples and non-examples and ask for each one, “Is this a scenario?” In the feedback I explain why the example fits or doesn’t fit my definition of “scenario.”

This starts the material with an activity, rather than a presentation, and I suspect it makes the definition more clear than a text blurb would have. It also lets people who already know the definition skip ahead by skipping the detailed feedback once they’ve confirmed that they made the right choice.

What do you think? What techniques have you seen or used that get learners immediately, actively involved in a course? Let us know in the comments.


London workshop on June 6

Please join me and Norman Lamont in London on June 6 for the fun, hands-on workshop “Training design for business results.” It’s action mapping on steroids. You’ll get in-depth practice applying activity-centered design to one of your projects. Learn more about the workshop.

Get your free 23-page ebook: Training Designer's Guide to Saving the World

Throw them in the deep end! (but keep a life preserver handy)

Child swimming in deep end“You’re setting them up to fail!” You’ve probably heard this if you’ve proposed starting with an activity instead of first providing instruction.

“Everyone knows” that people should be carefully shown how to do something and only then allowed to practice doing it. If you just throw them in the deep end, frustration and cognitive overload and squashed self-esteem will supposedly inhibit their learning.

However, several studies suggest that when we first challenge learners and then give them instruction, we can improve their ability to apply and extend their new knowledge. They could more effectively apply what they’ve learned to their jobs and to new situations.

In Scenario-Based Elearning, Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer point out this study on “productive failure,” which led me to several others.

In these and similar studies, students with some knowledge of a discipline were given a problem without first being told how to solve it. They floundered, usually in groups, and then their solutions were examined and they were taught the correct process.

These “productive failure” groups were slightly weaker at applying the new process than were the “direct instruction” groups who were first taught what to do. But the former flounderers were clearly better at applying what they learned to other situations and at developing additional models that they hadn’t been taught.

It’s not clear how much support is best during the initial challenge. Collaboration with other learners seems to help, so in lonely, asynchronous elearning you’ll want to provide at least some scaffolding, such as hints or questions that guide learners to the correct steps to take. If I were queen, this scaffolding would be optional, it wouldn’t teach the content, and it would be provided in the activity, not as pre-activity instruction.

Like most research in instruction, these studies were done on elementary and university students, not adults in the working world. But in contrast to many studies, the researchers went beyond assessing the correct regurgitation of facts and looked at how well learners applied and extended their knowledge, which is our goal in business training.

This slideshow by one of the researchers, Manu Kapur, summarizes some of the findings that might apply to us. Some papers are available as full text:

When you think about the lessons you’ve learned, which are the most memorable — the ones in which someone first taught you everything you needed to know, or the ones in which you at first floundered and even failed? Have you been able to convince stakeholders to let people learn through a challenge rather than instruction? Let us know in the comments!

Online course in scenario design

I’m developing a 4.5-hour scenario design mini-course that anyone can sign up for. We’ll meet online for three 90-minute sessions starting this fall. If you’d like to be notified when the online course is available, please sign up here and you’ll be among the first to hear about it.

I’ve also overhauled my scenario design webinar. It’s a one-hour online workshop you can request for your team or ASTD chapter.

Australia: upcoming public workshops

  • Nov. 13, Sydney: Training design master class for training managers at the Learning@Work conference
  • Nov. 26, Melbourne: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet
  • Nov. 29, Sydney: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet

Photo by anuarsalleh

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Why you want to put the activity first

Let’s say we’re designing a course that will help widget sales people overcome buyers’ objections. The objection we’re focusing on right now is this one: “I’ve read that your widget creates a lot of heat.” We have a specific way we’d like our sales people to respond to that objection.

Some people in our audience are familiar with the concerns about heat, while new people might not know as much.

How do you think most training designers would approach this? I think they’d do it like this.

Presentation followed by activity

The designers would think, “First, we’ll tell them the common concerns about heat, to make sure everyone knows them. Then we’ll tell them what our own research shows about the heat and why it’s not a big deal. Then we’ll tell them how to respond to heat objections, and finally we’ll let them practice with a scenario.”

Why did I label this “boring and inefficient?”

  • The learners have to trudge through many screens before they finally get to use their brains.
  • Some people already know the stuff presented on the many screens.
  • The how-to info is presented immediately before the scenario, making the scenario a simple check of short-term memory.

Here’s a more efficient approach that has the added advantage of helping people learn by doing.

Series of activities followed by a recap

We immediately plunge learners into a realistic scenario — followed by another and another. Then we concisely recap what they’ve figured out through the scenarios.

The material feels like a stream of activities, not pages of information followed by one lonely memory check. The recap will be memorable and concise because it refers back to concrete examples, such as, “As you saw with Ravi’s objection, it’s best to …”

But what about the information?

We can include the information about heat issues as optional links in the scenario.

Screen from scenario with links to optional information

Now our material is more efficient and a heck of a lot more interesting. People who already know all about the heat issues (or, importantly, think they know) will forge ahead without reading the optional documents. Newer or more careful people will check the documents to make sure they know what’s going on. Both groups will figure out if they chose correctly when they see the results of their choices.

In addition, the optional documents are low-tech PDFs or pages on the intranet, the same documents that people use on the job. This makes the information much easier to update and puts the scenario in a more realistic context.

But they might just guess and miss important information!

The usual argument for the boring and inefficient approach is, “We have to make sure everyone is exposed to the information.” But who cares whether they’ve been exposed to it? What we care about is whether they know it and can apply it.

So we’ll design scenarios that make them prove they know it, and we’ll design enough challenging scenarios about the same important information to make sure no one is slipping through the cracks. And if we’re really worried about information being missed, we can include it in the feedback, as shown in this post.

But you didn’t show them how to overcome objections!

We haven’t led them by the nose through the Heat Objection Handling Process because we want them to figure it out through experience. Our feedback will help. For example, if someone chooses option C above, they’ll see the following result:

“I’m not surprised that your studies don’t show any problems,” Ravi says, sounding a little annoyed. “But Widget World does rigorous, independent testing, and they found heat issues. What can you tell me about the heat?”

From this, learners realize that shoving research at the customer backfires. It sounds like option A was the better option, and for their next step, they’ll want to calmly discuss the concerns. (This post goes into more detail on why we’re just showing the result rather than telling the learner what they did right or wrong.)

More design time, less development

This approach usually requires more in-depth discussions with the subject matter experts and more careful script writing. However, it often results in quicker and easier development. We’re building fewer screens and, happily, we feel less compelled to add bling in a desperate attempt to make a boring presentation more interesting.

Scenario design workshops and online seminar

The example used in this post is taken from my new and improved scenario design webinar. It’s a one-hour online workshop you can request for your team or ASTD chapter.

I’m also developing a 4.5-hour scenario design mini-course that anyone can sign up for. We’ll meet online for three 90-minute sessions starting this fall. If you’d like to be notified when the online course is available, please sign up here and you’ll be among the first to hear about it.

Have you had any success designing material that puts the activities first? Let us know in the comments!

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